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Gang Territory: Improving Congressional Oversight of Intelligence

In the most recent edition of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vicki Divoll (former counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) argues for what she terms the “Full Access Doctrine”  (FAD). That doctrine would provide that  “under the Constitution, Congress is entitled to seek and receive any information from the executive branch that it needs to carry out its core responsibilities to make laws, appropriate funds, and investigate all matters relating to the intelligence functions of our government.” The executive branch, she contends, has no right to withhold any information from Congress, apart from a narrow category of presidential communications protected under United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974).

Divoll writes in the context of congressional oversight of the intelligence community, and she makes clear that she is dissatisfied with Congress’s ability to get information needed for such oversight. Specifically, she decries the process by which the executive will brief certain sensitive intelligence matters only to the “Gang of Four” (the chairs and ranking members of the two intelligence committees).

Divoll criticizes the restricted briefings as “meaningless access” because they do not assist Congress in carrying out its Article I responsibilities. She points to the briefings received by the Gang of Four on enhanced interrogation techniques during the Bush Administration. Although the briefings were later cited as evidence that the recipients, including Representative Nancy Pelosi, had implicitly sanctioned waterboarding and other controversial practices, Divoll argues that there was little that the Gang of Four could have done with the information. She notes that they “receive nothing in writing, are told not to take notes, often have no staff assistance, and cannot discuss the material with anyone but the other three Gang of Four members.” In short, the restricted briefing “serves to give the executive branch a scapegoat if a controversial program becomes public, but it provides absolutely nothing to assist Congress in the performance of its lawmaking, appropriations and oversight duties.”

Divoll’s solution to this problem is for Congress to pass legislation establishing new rules governing congressional access to intelligence. Although she does not spell out the details, the legislation would be “based on the constitutional principles that Congress is entitled to demand anything it wants to serve its proper duties, and the President is required to provide it.” While Congress might choose not to receive some types of information (particularly details of covert actions or similar ongoing operations), the President would not have the discretion to withhold information or to provide it only to a select group of Members.

Divoll’s frustration with the current oversight process is understandable, but her proposal misses the mark, IMHO, in several respects. First, it should be noted that she significantly overstates the extent to which FAD represents established law. Certainly it has never been regarded as the law by the executive branch. It was George Washington who first enunciated the authority of the President to withhold from Congress information that would “injure the public,” following the unanimous recommendation of a 1792 cabinet meeting that included Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph and Thomas Jefferson. Since that time, presidents have often asserted the authority to withhold information from Congress for a variety of reasons, including national security. See, e.g., Mark Rozell, Executive Privilege: The Dilemma of Secrecy and Democratic Accountability 32-53 (1994). No president has ever endorsed FAD or anything like it.

Nor has the judicial branch endorsed the doctrine. Divoll primarily relies on Nixon and United States v. AT&T, 567 F.2d 121 (D.C. Cir. 1977), but neither supports her position. Nixon involved a criminal, not a  congressional, subpoena, and it did not suggest that the executive lacked authority to withhold national security information. The Court suggested, in fact, that the outcome might have been different if national security were involved, noting that Nixon “does not place his claim of privilege on the ground they are military or diplomatic secrets. As to these areas of Art. II duties, the courts have traditionally shown the utmost deference to Presidential responsibilities.”

United States v. AT&T did involve a congressional attempt to access national security information (evidence regarding potential abuses of executive branch wiretapping). The court, however, declined to resolve the competing constitutional claims of the executive and legislative branches, instead attempting to steer the parties toward a negotiated settlement. The court’s dicta suggests that it rejected the executive’s claim of absolute authority to withhold national security information, but also that it rejected the assertion of an absolute legislative right to access such information (“We have not accepted the contention that the executive determination that national security may be involved is conclusive and not subject to any further inquiry, nor have we accepted the rival claim that Congressional right of access to documents for legislative purposes is at any time absolute.”). Like Mark Rozell, the court appears to favor an intermediate approach that would weigh the competing interests of the executive and legislative branches with respect to a particular dispute.

Thus, neither the executive nor judicial branches have endorsed FAD. But even if one thinks that Divoll’s view of the law is the correct one, it is hard to see how new legislation would advance the ball. Congress, as she notes, was unwilling to stand up to the Obama administration over relatively minor changes to the law governing covert action notifications. There would seem to be little chance the Congress would be able to enact a far more ambitious statute along the lines she proposes. And even if such a law were enacted, there is no guarantee that the executive would obey it. (See the War Powers Act).

Yet new legislation is not necessary to address the problem of restricted briefings. Congress already has the power to share the information in these briefings with all the members of the intelligence committees. As far as I have been able to determine, there is nothing in law or congressional rules now that would prevent any member of the Gang of Four from sharing the contents of a restricted briefing with their colleagues on the intelligence committees.

To make the matter clear and to put the executive branch on notice, the House and Senate should each adopt a rule that allows the Gang of Four to further disseminate the contents of a restricted briefing within the intelligence committees. The rule could provide for notice to the President before such dissemination takes place, which would give the executive branch an opportunity to state any objections it may have. In cases where the President objected, the rule might require that the chair and ranking member agree to overrule the objection (or a vote of the entire committee might be required under some circumstances).

These types of procedures make sense because there are situations in which it is preferable that sensitive information be as tightly contained as possible. It may be true, as Divoll suggests, that the tendency of the intelligence committees to leak information has been overstated, but it cannot be seriously disputed that there are risks involved in sharing information with all members of the intelligence committees. There have been cases in which members of these committees have released sensitive information, and common sense suggests that Members of Congress are more likely to release information inadvertently than are career intelligence officials.

The major difference between Divoll’s approach and mine is that I would put the burden on the members of the Gang of Four to determine when further dissemination is required. By making it clear that the Gang of Four has the power to seek further dissemination of restricted briefings, my proposal would entail greater responsibility and political risk on their part. Just as there may be a tendency for the executive to use restricted briefings as a means of scapegoating the recipients, so there may be a tendency for the recipients to avoid any accountability for the information they receive. But if the intelligence committees wish to be full partners in the conduct of U.S. intelligence activities, they must be prepared to accept a degree of responsibility as well.

 

 

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